Are you watching the women’s European football championships?
If you have access to it, why not?
It’s a question that interests me but more importantly it will tax those who have been trying to increase interest forward in Europe and beyond.
In revisiting this subject, firstly let me give you the good news. The quality of the football has been pleasing. Not life changing, not Brazil ’82, not Barcelona or Bayern no, but the edge is there – the crunch of the tackle, the zip.
Some defending has been of non-league men’s standard, but we are talking about errors that have decided games, not an overall malaise. It’s another reminder of the strides that women’s football has made in the last two decades in terms of standard. Significant ones. This tournament is watchable at worst, exciting at best. That’s the absolute acid test for football for me.
And to provide more context it’s been my choice above the array of choice of summer football for pining fans (I’m certainly not one of them with some big sporting drama to report on from Wimbledon to Ashes to Tour de France).
But to flick through channels in the UK over the past week you’d find a big continental football tournament – the Gold Cup – that’s been live at a very late hour and doesn’t quite have the pull in its early stages of Copa America.
Then there are the friendly matches everywhere. Manchester United’s shock defeat in Thailand, a better headline and story in David Moyes first match than 90 minutes spent watching it. Indonesia v Arsenal (the EPL teams pushing their brands in the Far East), Preston v a pretty much second string Liverpool team. Final score 0-4, or ‘what for’ in terms of watching on a glorious sunny summer’s day. Time to go and smell the flowers and let Brendan Rodgers do his work until August.
And so the women’s game has had a big window and opportunity to shine, a chance to please its followers and convert some new fans. Which it has in a surprising area – my father has never been the world’s biggest sports fan but he gave it a big seal of approval on the phone. Seventy-something men may not be the main target audience but, hey, why not?
We’ve seen some particularly good stuff from the hosts Sweden, but the strong group involving Norway, Netherlands and Germany has been particularly engaging. I thought Germany’s performance and victory against Iceland was superb, the first goal stretching from one end to the other with precision passes and a cool Lena Lotzen finish was superb.
So is the game going to capitalise on all of this? I hope so, but I wonder if the opportunity is in danger of slipping away because of a lack of boldness, a safety-first approach.
The coverage in the UK has been staid to the point of difficult to watch. And that’s a great shame. Half-time should not be featuring the turgid analysis we’re all used to from the men’s game.
How about properly reaching out to young girls conceivably watching on freeview television, in the way Indian Premier League has managed to dazzle some young fans and get them into cricket.
The key words should be excitement and fun. Where can young girls get into the game? Could there be more information on screen from what is after all the national broadcaster paid for by the public. Let’s have some wonder goals from the domestic game, let’s have a bit of personality for goodness sake.
I genuinely feel that in the justifiable quest to be taken seriously women’s football is, yes, taking itself too seriously. Shouldn’t football be fun too?
I’m not proposing the kind of studio banter you’d see from their peers in the men’s game, the ex-pros on the gravy train indulging each other in the way golf club bores excel. Humour without the humour. But what about innovative features on the players? Turn them into football stickers, or cartoons. Sell it. Sell it as fun. It’s not a discussion on the woes of the Euro, it’s a discussion on the excitement of the Euros.
Eventually, the hope is that women playing and watching football is second nature, the way it seems to be for the other half of the world’s population. In the United States, the formula is powerful.
Girls play at school. And I mean play properly, it’s brilliantly organised. And the national team has been consistently high-achieving. Abby Wambach’s 160 goals in 207 games means if you haven’t heard of her the people behind the women’s game might not be doing all they can in the marketing department.
The thing that strikes me is how natural is all seems. It’s no big deal, girls simply play football. And then people watch the league football and ultimately the national team is full of recognisable sporting talent.
The English Football Association have a five-year plan to turn the women’s game into the second most popular participation sport in the country, behind men’s football. And they have shown there is no room for sentiment by keeping the most successful old club – Doncaster Belles – in the second tier of a new structure.
They could do England progressing in the Euros, yes. But most of all they could do with shaking off the feeling that women’s football deserves a heavyweight treatment. You cannot tell the public, you cannot force the public, to recognise and respect the product. You cannot tell them they should like a sport more. It’s naive to think football and the business of selling can be separated in the modern age, and the FA have clearly grasped that.
If you’re involved in the women’s game, don’t be afraid to sell it, and don’t sell yourself short
This column appears on the Insideworldfootball.com website where Lee Wellings represents Al Jazeera.